[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ROM 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia systematically wiped out two million people, roughly a quarter of the total population. Amongst those they singled out were artists, film-makers, performers and intellectuals. Out of a total 380,000 barely 300 survived, the others having vanished without a trace. No one knows when and where they died.
The 1960s and 70s up until 1975 constitute Cambodia’s Golden Age of cinema. Around 400 movies were produced during this period of which a handful remain. But there is a revival underway driven by film-makers who were children when the purges took place. Ricky Panh was 13 as he watched his parents, sisters and tiny nephews die of starvation. Kulikar Sotho, one of very few current women directors, was barely two when she lost her father to the genocide. Her mother, she says, was almost ready to kill her baby sister and herself and then commit suicide but stopped herself in time. Their films are lifting the silence that still shrouds the Pol Pot era.
According to Sotho, this silence is one of the biggest problems in Cambodia today. Cambodian youth today are second and third generation descendants of survivors. They live in intimate contact with a past they have no knowledge of. It is for them that, in 2015, Sotho made The Last Reel. The film is also a homage to the redemptive power of cinema and constitutes a landmark in contemporary Cambodian cinema – it has won eight major international awards and was Cambodia’s official entry to the Oscars in 2016. In it, a young and rebellious girl, Sophoun, stumbles upon an old film from the seventies with its last reel missing – a reel which holds the key to her family’s troubled past. She decides to recreate it and comes of age in the process. The film is tellingly called The Long Way Home.
The Last Reelopens in Koh Pich, a newly developed area adjoining Phnom Penh. It has high-rises built by Chinese developers and a neighbourhood called L’Elysee, designed in faux-Paris style. It is a glittering elite city with its past wiped clean and is a favourite meeting place for young people. Veasna, Sophoun’s motorcycle-riding boyfriend – who carries a gun for no good reason – has just won a prize for her, a gigantic soft toy, in a fairground game. Sophoun then gets into a fight with Veasna and returns home on her own. Restless and edgy, she is very much a young Cambodian girl struggling to define herself within a patriarchal culture.
Sotho, in The Last Reel, weaves together references pertaining to Cambodia’s past as well as its present in an attempt to show how the one intrudes into the other. Sophoun’s father is an authoritarian ex-Khmer colonel trying to impose an arranged marriage on her. This detail ties up with forced marriages under the Khmer Rouge regime under which cadres were permitted to pick out women they wanted to marry. This is what Sophoun’s father did to her mother. Like many such women, she continues to live alongside him in a state of Cambodian ‘baksbat’(broken courage). She is spiritless, defeated, and given to collapsing without warning. Sophoun is deeply affected by her mother’s unhappiness. It is a part of her legacy she does not understand.
Sophoun runs away from her father and accidentally enters a derelict cinema hall like so many across Cambodia. The Last Reelmakes beautiful use of light to invest spaces with the appropriate atmosphere. Koh Pich was neon-lit, whereas the artificial lighting in the cinema hall creates light and shallow of a dim and quiet yellow and brown. It is a world frozen in time with the paraphernalia of cinema – cameras, a projector and film reels strewn about. Vichea, a film director having miraculously survived the Pol Pot era, is the ghost-like guardian of this space. Sophoun wanders around curiously and chances upon a poster of The Long Way Homewhich has a picture of her mother as a young woman. Vichea tells her she was once a famous actress.
The trauma of the Cambodian genocide
The Last Reelis structured as a film within a film. It is through the film that Sophoun gets to know the truth about her mother and fit the past into the present. Driving home this point is the fact that Dy Saveth, who plays Sophoun’s mother was indeed Cambodia’s most famous actress. She escaped the Khmer Rouge and lived anonymously in Paris as a florist till her return to Cambodia in 1993. Vichea similarly is played by Sok Sothun, a real-life film-maker who also survived the purges.
Sophoun takes up residence within the cinema hall and sets herself to work on the missing reel. She plays her mother’s role, taking on the burden of her past and restoring their broken connection. It is shot in green and fresh countryside suggestive of life- renewing forgiveness.
Cambodia’s film revival is squarely rooted in the trauma of the genocide and an almost obsessive excavation of the past. John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgottenrevisits Cambodia’s era of Rock ‘n Roll whereas in The Missing Picture, one of the most famous documentaries to have emerged from the Cambodian new wave, Ricky Panh recreates his lost childhood, his house, his family. Through cinema, these filmmakers are humanizing what has been dehumanized. The Last Reel, however, is told from the point of view of a generation that has not lived through the purges. It sheds valuable light on how the pain of survivor parents afflicts contemporary Cambodian society like a silent killer, leading to family dysfunction, broken communication, violence and divorce with which young Cambodians are all too familiar.
If there is one criticism of The Last Reel to be made, it is that it covers too much ground – the genocide, PTSD, gender relations and contemporary problems – and that the effort to weave these together sometimes shows. The film is also very long.
What is truly original about the film however is how it presents cinema as a means of renewal. Cambodia’s Golden Age of cinema and the tragedy visited upon it on it are vividly brought alive. What is at the heart of the film however is the mother-daughter relation. Dy Saveth is a veteran actress. Her portrayal of the effects of Khmer Rouge violence on a woman, in particular, is quietly spine-chilling. Ma Rynet who plays Sophoun, on the other hand, is a newcomer. But she excels in her role as a young girl in search of herself in troubled times.